Reverse-Sweeps: The Esport-Only Phenomenon

The world went wild at the end of the 2016 NBA Finals, as the favorite Golden State Warriors dropped the last 3 games to Cleveland, losing their 3-1 lead in the series. Something similar happened just a few months later when the Chicago Cubs accomplished the exact same thing (ironically, against Cleveland) in the World Series. These two impressive displays of perseverance just happened to be back-to-back, and for cities that hadn’t won championships in forever; showing us something that most people already knew…

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Lebron James after his historic victory over the Warriors

People are a sucker for comebacks; both because we rarely see them, and because of our tendency to root for the underdogs. Momentum is such a heavy advantage when competing against someone else, and the one who garners the most toward the beginning is often. To illustrate this, the only other time this has happened since my previous examples is San Jose’s comeback against the Vegas Knights in last year’s NHL playoffs: another monumental moment for a city whose past history hasn’t been incredibly kind to them.

Now, for most of you who don’t frequently watch esports, the term “reverse-sweep” may be new to you. I imagine you guessed this on your own, but a reverse-sweep is when a team is down 2-0 or 3-0 in a series (depending on if it’s a 5 or 7-game series), and wins all of the remaining games in a row to essentially sweep the last of the games; often providing an amazing spectacle for every except those on the losing team. However, we rarely, if ever, get to see these series play out in traditional sports.

Coming into this article, I knew that this was a very large rarity, but even I didn’t know exactly how rare it was. The only example of a 3-0 comeback I could find in the MLB was the Red Sox’s stunning performance against the Yankees in 2004. Similarly, I believe not a single time has there been a reverse-sweep in the NBA. Finally, the NHL has a disproportionate amount of them in the league’s history, but it has only happened 3 times since 1942: 3 times in 77 years!!!

Anyone unfamiliar with esports may think “Well, even if they happen more often, they can’t be that common, right?” to which I would say: I wouldn’t call them common, but they’re not uncommon either. The entire reason for this article is the spring season playoffs of the NA LCS this year, where the semifinals saw TSM reverse-sweep C9 right before TL reverse-swept TSM in the finals. This back-to-back phenomenon destroys that of 2016 traditional sports; especially because it was a full on sweep and not just a big comeback. As another example: one of my favorite memories as an esports viewer is watching Cloud9 come into the 2015 Worlds Gauntlet as the worst seed, before reverse-sweeping 2 teams in a row and making it to the World Championship.

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A few hours before TSM would eventually lose 3 in a row to TL

I haven’t just cherry-picked these results, either. I personally think these are even more frequently seen in individual esports events, like professional Smash Bros. Though I don’t have as many concrete examples in my head (mainly due to the lack of recording done for Smash tournaments in the past), I do distinctly remember multiple times where top-10 player, Wizzrobe started 2-0 against maybe the best Smash player of all time: Armada. However, despite these fantastic starts, each time Armada would show his relentlessness and eventually become the victor.

So now that you’re slightly more familiar with the commonality of these events in esports, I wanted to discuss exactly why it could be. Firstly, I think the greatest difference is the amount of time in between individual games. Most traditional sports follow a pattern where they play one game, have a couple of days off, and play the next. In esports, an entire series is played in a row, with only very brief breaks; either to determine what the next stage will be, or for about 15 minutes of coaching. This thought was originally perplexing to me, as I would think in that case, momentum would be an even bigger aspect of how things would eventually play out, but upon further reflection, I understand why it might be the opposite.

While a team may have bunches of momentum in these circumstances where leads are taken early, if suddenly the other team grasps that momentum, it’s really hard to take it back. In an instance where a team is up 3-0 in the NBA Playoffs, when the other team takes a game, the leading team then has large amounts of time to determine what was different about that game, and why they lost it. They have time to meditate over how to counter their opponent once again, and garner a better mental game as well. When you start 2-0 or 3-0 in esports, lose one game, and then immediately play another, you feel defeated and surprised and don’t have much time to recover before the series continues. So while it may be hard for that initial game to be taken, once it is, the ball is in their court for the rest of the series.

The other large difference between these two experiences is the sheer nature of the games themselves. While many physical sports have enormous teams of very well-trained players who have done nothing but play that game their entire lives—esports are a bit different. Some people may have slight physical advantages such as reflex-speed, but for the most part, the actual skill-potential between all of the players is the exact same. The main difference is simply the time and effort put into the game, that determines their consistency. So in other words: there are a lot more physical factors in traditional sports that make the skill-gaps of the players and therefore, the teams, much larger. A 50-some person football team has a very large potential to be outmanned by another team with 50 players that are each just slightly better. Esports teams are maybe at most 10 players, meaning the likelihood that they’re entirely outmatches is very low. This allows for a more-likely scenario for comebacks to occur.

Now that I’ve kind of explored why these things may happen more-or-less, depending on the sport, I’d like to say whether or not it’s a bad thing; and how someone could potentially fix it. The nature of the game, as discussed previously, obviously can’t be easily changed, and even if it could, I don’t think it’s as big of a deal as the first difference. The time in between games could easily be changed, but I wouldn’t say it should be.

The first reason why I don’t think this should be combated is the health of the players. We’ve seen endless amounts of NBA injuries during the playoffs, because the cool-down period is necessary for bodies to recover. Secondly, I don’t know if these occurrences are necessarily that desirable for a sport. I do think it could potentially increase the audience; and therefore, revenue; of series that are supposedly “all but over,” but I think it would destroy a lot of the fan’s comfort and joy in watching these games. While I do enjoy the memories associated with C9’s 2015 Gauntlet run, I do remember the mass amounts of anxiety that built up throughout the process. And if they didn’t end up winning the whole thing, it would’ve been for nothing; possibly creating a bad memory instead. Similarly, those who support teams being swept are honestly just going to become furious for a while, until it gets normalized (or maybe past that point). So in the end, I don’t know if it’d be a net positive for the sport; even without the physical dangers of playing more often.

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KD holding his injured leg during the 2019 NBA Playoffs

Overall, I think it’s an interesting thing for esports to have a unique aspect to themselves; and an exciting one, at that. Although comebacks do occur in normal sports quite frequently, none truly capture the grandiosity of a complete reverse-sweep. And although that’s sad, in a way, those of us who watch esports can hope for traditional sports to eventually gain our experiences, or we can hope to hoard them for ourselves.

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